Does Getting “Hot” Make for Stronger Connections?
“Warming Up” to Each Other
Why do we say we “feel warm” toward someone to whom we feel close and are attracted? What is the link between physical temperature and the allure and strength of our attraction toward someone? Why do we describe someone who doesn’t greet us in a friendly way as giving us a “cold reception” or the “cold shoulder” when we are ignored? Is there really a connection between having “warm-hearted feelings” and physical temperature? Science is showing just how strongly temperature influences both our emotional state and our mental attitudes when it comes to how we feel toward others. Mysteriously, much of the impact that temperature has on our perception of others occurs outside of our conscious mental awareness.
February Blog Connections
This month’s blog theme explores how our connections toward others are formed: first, to create connections, then to strengthen them, and to finally how to improve the odds that these connections last. (Links to this month’s previous blogs: http://bit.ly/ConnectionAndChemistry and http://bit.ly/LoveAndDanger).
What the Research Says…
Studies offer two main explanations for the link between temperature and closeness. One is that from before birth, but certainly in the early years after birth, warmth is associated with the close physical presence of a loving and security-building care-giver. Usually, that warm closeness brings with it caring touch, too. So, we associate warmth and physical proximity with caring and love.
The second explanation is more metabolic. Being warm-blooded creatures is metabolically expensive. We must burn lots of calories to maintain our body’s core temperature of 98.6°. Being physically close to others can reduce our metabolic costs by up to 40% when in colder environments because we experience the metabolic benefits of shared bodily warmth. So, being physically close to someone is good because it lowers our personal energy bills.
While this is interesting, what is fascinating is just how non-consciously sensitive we are to temperature when it comes to how we experience the quality of the connection we feel toward the people with whom we interact, regardless of whether we have ever met them before. Approach/Avoid and Connect/Disconnect decisions are often made according to the rules of emotional thermodynamics. Here are several research examples:
· Study 1: Subjects were riding up an elevator with a woman who was carrying an armful of objects, including either a cup of hot coffee or an icy drink. She asked a subject to hold the drink. When that subject got to the research lab, and without any reference to the woman in the elevator, the subject was asked to read a description of a fictitious person “A.” A consistent finding showed that if the subjects had held the warm cup of coffee given in the elevator, they rated person A more positively than if they held the icy cup in the elevator.
· Study 2: Study subjects engaged in a game that measured degrees of willingness to cooperate with strangers. While playing the game, those subjects that were holding a warm pack in their hands were noticeably more cooperative than those holding cold packs as they engaged in the game.
· Study 3: A group of subjects were studied as they interacted with each other through an internet-based social game. Certain subjects were secretly selected to be “shunned” or locked out by the rest of the group. The subjects who were socially ignored — the opposite of being warmly connected — were found to have skin temperature drops of 0.68˚. Social rejection left them “cold.” Then, the researchers had the rejected subjects hold a cup of hot tea while they were interviewed about the game by the study investigators. The subjects rated the emotional “pain” of the rejection as lower than did other socially shunned subjects who weren’t physically warmed or emotionally soothed by the hot tea.
Getting “High” with a Friend and Myself…
We also know that the oxytocin, the hormone involved in helping us form social bonds and trust in others is also involved in helping the body to regulate temperature. It is not unusual for the brain and the body to use the same molecules for multiple purposes. Also, the insula is a brain structure involved with rating the “likeableness” or “attractiveness” of someone. The insula is loaded with receptors for opioid molecules that at modest levels leave us feeling a euphoric and pleasant “high.” When this area is stimulated, as happens when we are physically warmer, we describe the feeling as a gentle emotional toastiness all over. The point is that whatever is linked to the release of oxytocin or chemical stimulation of the insula’s opioid receptions works to enhance two things: our ability to control our body temperate AND to feel physically closer, warmer, more connected and more positive toward whomever we happen to be near, even strangers!
Some “Hot” Tips for Stronger Connections
What are practical and simple implications of this research on our ability to form, deepen and sustain our connections to others? Here are some interesting personal experiments you could explore.
· When you want to draw close to someone, consider sharing a warm cup of tea, or turn up the thermostat a bit, or offer a comfy sweater to wrap around their shoulders. (You could of course, share an icy cold beer, but that could make you feel “close” for a different set of reasons: The alcohol dilates your capillaries, driving more blood to your skin surface making you temporarily feel warmer. Also, the alcohol acts as a brain disinhibitor that can impact your judgement about who is or isn’t a safe or a “warm and cuddly” person.)
· If you are going to touch someone — a date, a partner, a child — warm your hands first. The old saying, “warm hands, warm heart” may well have a solid science foundation.
· When someone’s feelings have been hurt, soothing words of comfort shouldn’t be overlooked. But, consider the added benefit of putting an arm around their shoulder or giving them a comforting hug. The closeness can literally and figuratively help to warm them up to you more easily and naturally.